Ten years in, Hawthorne Boulevard's only successful fine-dining venture has dramatically reinvented itself, under the leadership of lauded chef Matt Lightner, in a transformation no less surprising than, say, the phrase "Senator Al Franken." The understated, almost severe dining room that once specialized in enormous pork chops and bright fried vegetables is now the stage for bold culinary experimentation of a sort we've rarely seen in this city. Lightner, who labored at the renowned restaurants Mugaritz (in Spain) and Noma (in Copenhagen), is working in a different vein from the tongue-in-cheek deconstructionists and form-over-flavor artistes who've attracted so much attention of late. This isn't better eating through chemistry; most of his preparations could be replicated at home, if you were willing to spend a lot of time at it. Rather, Castagna's menu is filled with the sort of food a child might prepare, if that child happened to be a fantastically skilled cook—strange, evocative and occasionally off-putting in appearance, but very tasty nonetheless. Three examples, which certainly won't be on the menu by the time you read this: thick slices of quick-pickled cucumber marinated in rice vinegar and dill, sprinkled with flowers and peeled green almonds, attacked from the side by an avalanche of snowy powder—actually frozen, shaved, smoked tuna—that looked like some sort of accident and tasted like some sort of sushi; a dish of morel mushrooms, buckwheat groats, ferns and barbecued lamb that looked and smelled like a forest floor; and a carrot, poached in birch-wood syrup, coated with finely chopped bone marrow and hazelnuts, that tasted like a barbecued pork rib. None of these preparations can be inferred from the menu, which irritatingly only lists ingredients in four numbered categories ("Herbs, dungeness crab, seaweed, herb infusion, coriander, $16") without further explanation, so don't hesitate to interrogate your waiter about the evening's offerings. He or she won't mind—Castagna's service is as efficient and friendly as ever.
- Ideal meal: Choose one dish from each of the menuâs four categories for $65 to get the full Lightner experience.
- Best deal: The complimentary bread course, which comes with house-churned butter and a pork-fat spread, is one of the best things Iâve ever eaten.
- Chefâs choice: Black beets with sea urchin. âTheyâre these beets that a local farmer grows that are so sweet, and we cook them slow, so they caramelize and have this really nice roasted flavor.â
GO: Castagna, 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-7373, castagnarestaurant.com. 5:30-10 pm or so Wednesday-Saturday. $$$-$$$$ Expensive-very expensive.